Before the Akanu Ibiam International Airport, Enugu, was shut for repair work some weeks ago, authorities at the federal aviation ministry raised the alarm over the state of things, including infrastructure, at the facility. The Minister of Aviation, Hadi Sirika, had said the airport was a disaster waiting to happen and called for urgent action, even though the main action was required from the federal authorities, which he represents.
The minister had raised the issue of high radio mast located close to the airport. He also talked about an abattoir near the airport, which he said was attracting birds to the area, something not good, owing to bird strike. Also, there was the issue of a market nearby and shanties around the airport. All these were considered a risk to airport operations. In the main, the runway, which was dilapidated and always flooded, was something to worry about. Also, there was complaint about the earmarked free trade zone around the airport.
With the listed problems, it was clear that actions needed on the Enugu airport were two-pronged: From the state government and federal government. To take care of its part, the Enugu State government, led by Hon. Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, took action. The governor relocated the abattoir and the market. He has got the owner of the radio mast to agree to relocate it, while promising to pay compensation. Illegal structures and shanties around the airport have been marked for demolition. Although the location of a free trade zone around the airport should not be a major issue, as airports are not totally cut off from civilisation, the state government has brought the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the free trade zone facilitators to the round table, where adjustment to the master plan has been agreed.
On its part, the federal government finally rose to the occasion when it formally shut the airport on August 24, 2019, for rehabilitation work. It was more cheering when the authorities declared an emergency on the airport, saying its rehabilitation was top priority. To show government’s readiness to execute the rehabilitation work, President Muhammadu Buhari had, in response to the appeal by South East governors and leaders who visited him, approved a N10 billion intervention fund for the Enugu airport. With this, expectations have been high.
What the government has done so far is commendable. The shutting of an airport to prevent accidents is expected of any responsible government. The rehabilitation or upgrade of an airport is a global phenomenon. As technology improves and as facilities decay, the right thing is to upgrade and fix them so that things work efficiently. However, the length of the rehabilitation work at the Enugu airport is something that must be taken seriously. The authorities should not only rehabilitate the airport but also do so within the shortest possible time. The shifting of grounds on the deadline for completion of work is disturbing. First, the authorities had set December 2019 as deadline for the completion of the rehabilitation work, with a firm promise that passengers would fly to the airport during the Yuletide. Now, they are saying the airport’s rehabilitation would be concluded by Easter 2020, which means that the reopening of the airport would be around March or April next year.
Despite the fact that the required rehabilitation work at the Enugu airport may be massive, the discordant tunes on the deadline are worrisome. When the December deadline was set, some of us considered it realistic. The period between August 24, 2019, and December 2019, which is approximately four months, is ample time to do a total repair of the Enugu airport runway or any airport whatsoever. It takes sincerity of purpose, determination and seriousness for this to happen. What the federal government did at the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, Abuja, proved that dispatch rehabilitation work is possible anywhere and anytime. It took the government six weeks to reconstruct the Abuja airport runway. I do not see why this is not possible at the Enugu airport, if the government wants this to happen.
Some people may say the Abuja airport cannot be equated with the Enugu airport. Yes and no! Abuja airport is in the federal capital of Nigeria, quite alright, and, therefore, needed urgent and prompt attention. Enugu airport is not in the federal capital territory, but it is also an important infrastructure in the country. The airport is the only international gateway from the South East. For international travels, it technically services six states – Abia, Anambra, Delta, Ebonyi, Enugu and Imo, which are close by. It has the potentiality of high passenger traffic, all things being equal. The airport is, therefore, important to the South East, as Abuja airport is to the federal government. Therefore, urgent attention is required for the rehabilitation work to be completed within a short time.
The effect of a long closure of the Enugu airport would be enormous. Apart from international travellers, local air travellers from Ebonyi and Enugu states are suffering. These air travellers have to fly to Owerri, the Imo State capital, or Asaba, in Delta State, to access airports. And the roads linking these two airports to Enugu and Ebonyi states are not in good condition. Indeed, one had expected that the federal government would have taken the same measure it took when the Abuja airport was shut. In relation to Abuja airport, the government ensured that the rail services between Abuja and Kaduna functioned effectively, with adequate security. Also, security arrangement was made for the Abuja-Kaduna expressway route.
It would have been good if actions were also taken to rehabilitate the roads linking Owerri to Enugu and Asaba to Enugu, to make movement less cumbersome for air travellers and other commuters. The federal road from Awka to Enugu is terrible and impassible. The old road, which is the alternative route, is also not very good. Remedial work should have been done on the old road before the airport was shut. Remedial work should also have been done on the Aba-Umuahia-Enugu wing of the federal highway linking Enugu. These done, air passengers from Ebonyi and Enugu, who would fly to or out of Owerri and Asaba, would have had less stressful experiences. The blame for this inaction on road repairs goes to both the federal government and state governments in the South East. If the federal government could not fix the federal roads immediately, the state governments could have quickly rehabilitated state roads on the Awka-Enugu and Imo-Abia-Enugu routes, for easy access to the alternative airports and commuting between states generally.
The federal government should look at the deadline for the completion of the rehabilitation of Enugu Airport again. If the December 2019 deadline is not feasible, a more realistic date should be set, like January 2020. The Easter 2020 deadline is certainly too far. The government should ensure prompt disbursement of funds, immediate mobilisation of contractors to site and close supervision of work. Also, government should use the opportunity of reconstructing the runway to make the airport a truly international gateway. Modern navigational aids must be installed at the airport. Facilities for night flights and operations must also be installed. The terminal for the international wing should be completed, equipped and made functional. Security should be ensured.
I have no doubt that, with these done, and much more, a greater number of international airlines would find Enugu airport enticing enough to fly there. It is not impossible that, with standard facilities in place, airlines like Air France, Air Peace, British Airways, Turkish Airways and others will join Ethiopian Airlines to operate the Enugu international route.